Video message from Dr Margaret Chan Director-General, World Health Organization

WHO European Ministerial Conference on Nutrition and Noncommunicable Diseases in the Context of Health 2020

Vienna, Austria, 4 July 2013

I warmly welcome this ministerial conference, where European nations will be addressing nutrition and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) for the first time in the context of Health 2020.

In many countries, the true impact of diet-related NCDs is somewhat masked by the availability of treatments that lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and control metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

But obesity is not something that can be masked or hidden. A growing prevalence of obesity and overweight in a population is a signal that bad trouble has arrived.

The causes of obesity are complex. The epidemic has multiple driving forces. Some are entrenched and difficult to alter. But others can be addressed, as countries in the European Region have shown in ground-breaking ways.
Population-wide obesity is a signal that something is wrong in the environment in which people make their food choices. When more than half of all adults in a country are obese or overweight, it is simply not possible that all of these people are lazy gluttons with no self-discipline.

Regulatory approaches can be problematic. As many countries know, they can elicit strong resistance from the public. Tobacco smoking harms the health of non-users through second-hand smoke. Harmful alcohol use harms the health of others through violence and drink-driving. But overweight people, overeating in public, harm no one but themselves.

The highly processed foods that contribute most to diet-related diseases are also the cheapest and most convenient foods. They are readily available and heavily marketed. Many are also irresistibly tasty. This is an outstanding marketing strategy, as it encourages people to eat beyond the need to satisfy hunger.

Finally, the public is confused by too many competing nutrition messages from too many sources. The confusion has many sources.

Some news organizations will report any food-related study, without scrutinizing the strength of the study design or the credibility of its findings.

Industry funds research, and this helps keep the public in doubt.

The science itself is challenging and imprecise. Nutrition research can reach conclusions about individual food constituents, but not about the admittedly still mysterious ways these components interact when they are present in real food.

We need to work with all stakeholders, including industry, to find public health solutions. There is no safe level of tobacco consumption. There are no safer cigarettes. But there certainly are safer formulations of foods and beverages.

The ideal solution, of course, is to make healthy foods the norm, and not a market niche. Healthy food can also make a profit, especially when clear and transparent labelling makes it easy for consumers to choose health-promoting foods.

I wish you every success as you consider ways to encourage your populations to adopt healthier eating patterns.

Thank you.